Why You Should Never, Ever Self-Diagnosis Using Google

And how your doctors could make better use of the Internet.

We’ve all been there: waking up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache, lymph nodes the size of tennis balls, tingling fingers or another ailment with an unexplained origin. More often than not, we’re concerned, and the first thing we’re inclined to do is fire up a computer and begin nervously Googling our symptoms, looking for possible problems our symptoms can lead to and treatments that can ameliorate them. In fact, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight in 10 Internet users look online for health information.

And while sometimes Internet searches can lead to the right answers, other times it can lead to anxiety or what’s called cyberchondria: the unfounded concern over common symptoms based on online literature and research. Once someone begins self-diagnosing and agonizing over a health problem they may have, this becomes an issue.

“The Internet is a tool,” says Rajnish Mago, psychiatrist and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “You can use the tool appropriately or you can misuse it.” It’s no news that there is a lot of bogus information on the Internet, particularly when entering the realm of medical forums. But while self diagnosis can lead to stress and improper diagnosis or self-treatment, the use of the Internet in healthcare actually has some amazing potential.

“I don’t think people should diagnose themselves, but they should use the Internet to become educated,” Mago says. He stresses that patients should use the Internet constructively to research their symptoms and the possible conditions they can lead to in order to come up with questions to ask a doctor. In a way, this helps both parties.

See, doctors can be very busy. They don’t always have enough time to fully assess each patient and educate patients on their symptoms and possible side effects of medications. “Many diagnoses are missed,” Mago says. For example, working in the psychiatric field, Mago has seen many cases of bipolar disorder and ADHD in patients that have gone undiagnosed. This alone may send many to the Internet for answers.

“Doctors need to be proactive about this, but that’s not what’s happening,” Mago says. He surveyed patients and found that none of them had ever been referred to a credible Internet resource by a doctor. Mago takes a different approach, embracing the fact that many patients go to the Internet for information. He sends patients to the website MedLinePlus (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus), which is run by the National Library of Medicine and free to use. “It not only gives a fair amount of information on it’s own . . . it acts like a portal,” Mago says. MedLinePlus provides detailed information about various illnesses and medications as well as links to other authoritative sources with credible information. Doctors can even get free “prescription” pads from MedLinePlus on which they can write topics for patients to look up.

And aside from helping patients becoming better educated medical consumers—and in return, better communicators with their doctors—some impressive things could happen if the Internet were used as a viable healthcare resource with curated information from doctors themselves. And it all starts with a site that has 1 billion unique users: YouTube.

“Videos have become very much a favored way of learning,” Mago says. He did a project in which he pretended to be a patient and looked for answers on YouTube. “The overwhelming majority of results were highly negative,” he says. The lack of credible healthcare sources on YouTube shows that it’s an outlet the medical profession has yet to tap in to. Perhaps that should change.

And the Internet’s potential in healthcare doesn’t end there.

“There needs to be a systematic tool to screen for illnesses,” Mago says. “The Internet could be a very powerful tool for screening millions of people.” All of his depression patients must be screened for bipolar disorder because the latter can go undiagnosed in depressed patients. Use of the Internet could possibly aid screenings like this.

In his current research, Mago is looking at ways to use the Internet to identify if symptoms are more likely side effects of medication than symptoms of the illness itself.

Another possibility is using the Internet to develop a website that will ask patients questions about their symptoms and use an algorithm to come up with possible problems. The website would then give the patient a list of questions that she should bring up with her doctor. One of Mago’s associates used this model for blood pressure.

Rather than discouraging their patients from using the Internet in the hopes that they don’t end up scaring themselves with false information, doctors should perhaps explore other alternatives and opportunities for what this resource can do. “The Internet is here to stay in healthcare,” Mago says. “The question medical professionals have to ask is if they are going to embrace it and use it to their advantage or be dragged in kicking and screaming.”

>> This article first appeared in the Liberty City Press.

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